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13 october 2016

Zoobiquity is a uniquely written, massively researched book produced by a physician (Barbara Natterson-Horowitz) and a writer (Kathryn Bowers) who seem to have taken equal part in its composition, but write as if Natterson-Horowitz were the sole speaker and investigator of its concerns. A cardiologist with training in psychiatry, Natterson-Horowitz is a people doctor who has been profoundly influenced by the study of veterinary medicine. She (with Bowers) argues that many of the diseases endemic to modern society are really of very old standing in the animal kingdom. That is not to say that cancer, obesity, addiction, and anorexia are "natural" in some Edenic sense, but to define them as organic, not mere cultural or ideological perversions of our animal natures. Beasts suffer similar, sometimes identical, maladies. Beasts have emotions too, and the authors argue for profound connections between body and mind – in impeccably clinical, not vague and touchy-feely, ways.

I had been aware for some time that human and animal medicine intersect. Many a parent has noticed that the same amoxycillin prescribed for children's ear infections is also prescribed for what ails dogs, and can be a lot cheaper for dogs. When beset by pink eye I have been known to chip my partner's cat's eyedrops. I no longer treat abrasions and scratches with antibiotic salve, but with something called Vetericyn, which my partner got for her horse. Hell, the company website says that Vetericyn is "safe for use on all animal species of all ages." I am an animal of a certain age. It works on me.

For Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers, the connections between human and animal health are not just at the micro level of shared response to medication. In chapter after chapter, they present broad ways of thinking about entire dynamics of human health and medicine that are mirrored in the animal world. Animals gorge when food is abundant, over-groom themselves in ways that are like human self-harm, take crazy risks as adolescents (males particularly). Many of our diseases are zoonotic, affecting animals and finding reservoirs of pathogens in animal populations.

The circle of life and the network of nature are vividly on display in Zoobiquity (a fun title that might mean "animals are everywhere"). The book starts from and returns to the sobering idea that people and animals alike can literally be scared to death. "Capture myopathy," a kind of stress heart attack, is the result trapped animals into a deadly response mechanism that is the body's way of making a last-ditch effort to fight or flee. People can also have such shocked responses to sudden stress. Or, instead of fighting/fleeing, people can faint, just as animals can play dead.

The notion of somebody fainting or having a heart attack because of emotions seems like something out of 19th-century novels, and I've read enough of them to be familiar with the cliché and also to make fun of it. But for Natterson-Horowitz (a cardiologist who has treated many a patient overcome by emotion), the effect of high emotions on the heart is no scoffing matter. In a book surprising but unsensational, she and Bowers bring extraordinary (but logical) connections to light.

Natterson-Horowitz, Barbara, and Kathryn Bowers. Zoobiquity: What animals can teach us about health and the science of healing. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2012. Kindle Edition.